By Brian Babcock
First published in the Globe and Mail, Jan. 3, 2003
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"If you don't know where you're going, then any road will get you there" - or so the Cheshire Cat told Alice as she made her way through Wonderland. He was right. All too often we spend very little time learning who we are or where we're going. And even when we think we know where we're headed, we sometimes lack direction.

There is a wisdom that transcends this dilemma. A friend of mine once described it as sechel (say-hehl), a Hebrew word that points to wisdom beyond experience. It surpasses learned behaviours and helps us change them. With it, we can look beyond preconceived notions of how things are and how we believe they should be. We discover new capacities within ourselves and unlearn habits that block our abilities.

George Bernard Shaw evoked something of this wisdom when he quipped: "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."

In one sense, it's a kind of learned ignorance that challenges conventional wisdom, an understanding of how things could be. It allows us to surpass the talent of hitting targets and begin to hit the targets others can't see.

Fortunately, it lies dormant in all of us and can be enhanced if we train ourselves to think in more visionary and innovative ways. I've designed a concept of four principles that I think contribute to this wisdom, a distillation of ideas outlined by leadership researcher Warren Bennis:

Choose Humanity

Believe in others in a way that's free of sarcasm, ridicule or intentional hurt. We may not be able to accept every team member's behaviour in every project - some seem intent on destroying the common goals of organizations. We can, however, believe in the self-worth of all persons.

A deed that goes against the team's purpose may have to be addressed and corrected, but the doer always has value as an individual. Simply put, leaders need to be hard on the issue, but soft with the people.

Find Balance

Most people will gladly associate with a leader whose personal character shows balance in at least three areas: ethics, ambition and competence.

Without balance, ethical standards can result in a pseudo-religious oratory, too demagogical for others to follow; overly ambitious people may frighten others as they run "over their backs" and "climb up the ladder;" the highly competent person may be a great bureaucrat, but may miss achieving the "traction" afforded by the support of others, becoming ineffective.

How do you balance these three traits?

First, get feedback. Use blind surveys, personal evaluations and ask clear "non-leading" questions. Ask these of everyone, your boss, customers, employees, friends, loved ones, even adversaries - get feedback from everyone who'll respond to your questions. Most importantly, act on the feedback. Choose the relevant ideas by looking directly into the imaginary mirror as you try to achieve this balance. Look at the reflection without distorting the image or filtering the feedback. Listen, learn and choose to act. It may be difficult at first, but concerted and repeated efforts will eventually bring rewards.

See Opportunity in Challenge

By focusing on success, we learn to see challenges instead of impossible obstacles. By using the language of achievement (words and phrases like "tomorrow's challenge") instead of the language of defeat ("impossible" or "can't be done"), we give hope. By believing in what we do and what we say we can do, we create the possibility of achievement.

Think of it this way: You gain confidence and improve your team's sense of self worth when you believe you'll be the first to land a spaceship on the moon. President John F. Kennedy's challenge to his nation during the space race was this: Defy the odds and turn them into opportunity. With positive language and a focused belief, he probably advanced space projects by decades.

Act With Authentic Confidence

If we remain open to personal change, behave authentically and make sound judgments in areas not defined as black and white, we present an aura of inner confidence. Typically it's one of the most challenging of the four principles to master. But how do you display authentic confidence enough to inspire others?

First, you have to find your passion: learning what's in your heart, then leading with your heart is critical to inspiring others. If you don't believe in what you're doing - and asking others to do - how can you expect them to believe?

The second, but less important, step is to learn how to express that passion. Study and practise body movement, elocution, voice inflection and so on. Practise alone to create the confidence to speak with inspiration. Too hard? Try imitating someone who has inspired you.

In my experience, individuals who have mastered these four leadership traits are those whom others willingly follow.

Unfortunately we often resist the change because we lack the discipline and courage to view our world in new ways. We prefer to stick to the old targets, the well-beaten path. We simply do things like they've always been done.

By seeing beyond the target that our natural talents allow us to hit and aiming for targets others may not see, we begin to display sechel. With hard work, candour and an open heart, we can ask the why nots of the way things could rather than asking why things are the way they are. And we can dare to be unreasonable.

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